ORLANDO, Fla. — On Tom Osborne's last official day in a football stadium, I saw some ghosts.
This was after another Nebraska bowl loss, the third straight, a streak that must sound familiar to Osborne watchers. Georgia and Nebraska sparred for three quarters before the Bulldogs dropped the hammer. To the rest of the world, it must have looked like the same old, same old Nebraska.
But this one, this loss, was different.
This wasn't about getting embarrassed or outclassed for four quarters, a sideline tantrum or referee conspiracies.
It started in the interview room, the same one where, one year ago after the loss to South Carolina, coach Bo Pelini looked exasperated and uncharacteristically appeared to blame his players.
A year later, after a 45-31 loss to No. 7 Georgia, Pelini was trying to sell sunshine.
His team had the Dawgs on the run, before a handful of big plays turned it in the fourth quarter. And now glass-half-full Bo was more positive and definitive about his program and the future of it than he's ever been. This, after a loss.
“One thing I can say is — and I told our team this — there's no question that we can play with any football team in the country,” Pelini said. “We want to make that next jump. We want to win them all. We want to compete for a national championship. I don't think we're very far away.
“I'm really, really excited about what we have coming back and the prospects for next year.”
This is not the 1993 season. This was not Nebraska's unreal heavyweight bout with Florida State for a national championship on a steamy night in south Florida. Different teams, different time.
But man, the vibe from Pelini reminded me, for the world, of listening to Osborne the morning after that Orange Bowl heartbreaker. I had never heard Osborne so proud, so full of life, talking about his team's effort. This, after a loss.
It was as if Osborne sensed how close he was. Moreover, after so many spankings in the Orange Bowl, Nebraska got over a mental hump that night, showed it could go toe-to-toe.
Did Nebraska do that on a sun-kissed New Year's Day in Orlando?
Perhaps, if the Huskers can learn the lessons of the early '90s.
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The buzz phrase “over the hump” was tossed around the Nebraska postgame scene late Tuesday afternoon. How do you win these games? How do you make the plays? How did Georgia figure it out?
The answer was as plain as Keith Marshall's acrobatic touchdown catch near the pylon, as easy to read as Aaron Murray catching Nebraska in the all-out blitz and finding Chris Conley for a wide-open 87-yard touchdown jaunt down the middle.
“Recruit, recruit, recruit,” secondary coach Terry Joseph said.
I don't have enough batteries in the calculator to figure out how many yards and points Nebraska has given up in the past two games. The national wiseguys are out in force, saying Pelini has to turn in his genius card, and Jim Rome was tweeting give back the Blackshirts.
This is not about X's and O's, people. It's about Jimmys and Joes. And Ndamukongs. Pelini was a pretty smart guy when he had No. 93 creating chaos in the middle. Or, Eric Hagg and DeJon Gomes patrolling center field.
Playmakers make plays. Georgia had 'em and more of 'em. Nebraska? On defense, the Huskers have a wonderful group of grinders, guys with heart and soul, stuff they pumped back into the program as seniors.
But the Huskers need to get back into the speed department on defense. They need to get some playmakers in those black shirts. Up front, all the way to the back.
Pelini has proven he can fill the cupboard on offense. That's a pretty slick machine the Huskers rolled out on national TV on Tuesday, and the nation had to be impressed with how Tim Beck's toys moved up and down the field at will for stretches of the game, and had the mighty SEC defense calling two timeouts in the third quarter so it could catch its breath.
They're not perfect. Ameer Abdullah fumbled. Taylor Martinez threw an interception into coverage late. It happens. The problem is, with a shaky defense going against NFL talent, the margin for error is nil.
There was no secret to how Nebraska lost this one. And really, no shame. Georgia talent stepped up. Eventually, talent does that.
Where Nebraska has to get over the hump is in February. Pelini and his staff need to up the ante in recruiting, do it better and more often, and give the head coach a chance to be a genius again.
This fact is not lost on Joseph, who came to NU from Tennessee. Joseph has an SEC mentality. What he saw in the fourth quarter was no shock.
“For three quarters, we traded jabs,” Joseph said. “But you have to play a perfect game against a team like that. When you give up a couple big plays, their defense smells blood and they can go get it.
“We have to get more good players and be able to use them in a rotation, take some snaps off some guys. That's what they are able to do. Late in the game, they have more players with more snaps. They have more good players.”
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It's the sort of thing I used to hear Osborne and his ace recruiter, Kevin Steele, say after those losses to Miami in 1991 and Florida State in 1992. In fact, Osborne acknowledged the need to recruit as he was leaving the 1992 Orange Bowl to go visit a local hotshot named Tommie Frazier.
Wonder where Pelini and Joseph are going next?
Getting the chess pieces is one thing. Putting them on the chess board is another.
There's excitement for next season because Nebraska's athletic quotient on defense figures to rise, with the addition of several promising kids who were redshirted. Tackle Vincent Valentine, end Greg McMullen and linebackers Thomas Brown and Zaire Anderson, to name a few.
Maybe this season would have been different with a few of them on the field. Pelini allowed as much a few weeks ago, when he questioned whether his beat-up defensive line could have used some youth.
That's a decent thought. But Pelini's scheme takes time to learn. Is he willing to simplify it to get the playmakers on the field? He's not afraid to let the kids out to play on offense. That's worked out pretty well.
“It's hard to say about next year,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “I think we'll be much more athletic next year and have that dynamic. But there's going to be a learning curve.”
Then decrease the curve. Talent is king in college football. Talent erases mistakes. With big-timers rushing the passer and playing corner, you don't need to call the all-out blitz that Murray ate for lunch.
There's sunshine to be bought here, with that offense and that 2013 schedule. But the future depends on if Pelini can learn the lessons of defeat. This may have been a big moment. Or maybe just an apparition.
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>> Video: Postgame press conference with NU coach Bo Pelini:
>> Video: Capital One Bowl game highlights:
>> Video: Postgame analysis with Rich Kaipust: